"Bloody coons," said my friend. I stopped the car and told him to get out

The language of the white, hetero racist is becoming acceptable, even trendy, among the young urban class. This week, I have twice been accused of sounding like Margo from the Good Life for asking "why?" a xenophobic comment was considered "funny".

On Jemma's birthday, we ended up, through sheer laziness, in the worst pub in the area. The aptly named "Nobody's Inn" (as in, "the lights are on, but . . .") was full of local piss-heads, white legs in miniskirts and middle-aged men with beer guts. Behind me, a lone man with staring eyes listened avidly as Evi and I chatted about the Vagina Monologues. He got so overexcited that he slipped off his chair and landed between us, his lower lip damp and quivering. "Ugh, get away," said Evi. He leaned back in his chair, just enough for us to resume our chat. It was 2am when we left, and the weirdo lurched behind us yelling: "I'll do the lot of you." I grabbed two men in suits who were passing and asked them to walk with us until the scary stalker got bored.

Edward and Nick were "Nobody's Inn" regulars. They were moaning about the changes to their favourite boozer. Apparently, the old bar staff had left, there were loads more fights now, and drugs were everywhere. The reason for this decline in a once fine boozer was "Too many Fergals". Fergals? "Yeah," one of them winked, "Fergal Sharkeys. Darkies." They hooted with laughter. (Yes, some people really do still say "darkies".)

"That's not funny," I said.

They groaned and insisted: "But it's true." Strange, then, that all evening I saw only two black men in the bar, and they kept themselves to themselves. How, I wondered, could they be causing so much anarchy? The suits stormed off.

More of the same was on its way, but from - for me - a more surprising quarter. On Saturday, in Stoke Newington, I was driving two very good friends to lunch. As I pulled out of a side road, a car appeared from nowhere and undertook me on the bend. The driver was a black woman in her fifties.

Joshua, a thirtysomething TV producer, normally to be found "chilling out" with his pal, Colin the Rasta, muttered: "Bloody coons." It wasn't even said under his breath. It was voiced loudly and confidently in the back of my bloody car. His tone of voice said: "They'll both agree with this and laugh as well." I couldn't believe my ears. My mind desperately searched for the appropriate response. He must be joking, I reasoned, many of his friends are black. But surely that he "should know better" just makes it worse, answered my inner voice.

Slowing down and staring at him in the rear-view mirror, I said: "I can't believe you just said that. What a disgusting thing to say."

I was sure he would be embarrassed as soon as he was put on the spot, and that the whole incident was just a one-off aberration. Joshua and Jemma started laughing as if I were being a big, silly, oversensitive girlie. "C'mon, Lauren," he said, "the blacks are different around here, aren't they? They aren't like our friends. It's not colour I have a problem with, it's class. I'm a snob, not a racist. Around here, they're just the wrong class of black for me, that's all."

We've known each other for years and they had never, ever spoken like this before. Or had I ignored it? I pulled over to the kerb, certain of one thing only: if a stranger had made comments like that, I'd kick him out of my car.

"Get out," I said.

"Ooohh," came the giggled reply. My anger at the word "coons" was not fashionable. I was being "uncool" and "confrontational".

It's a depressing sign of the political times that those who bother to voice long-held and unchanging beliefs are either laughed at or dismissed as well-meaning but woefully out of date.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.